MCA’s Pub Conference took place on Tuesday 20 June at the Honourable Artillery Company on City Road, central London.
Panellists included Star Pubs & Bars managing director Lawson Mountstevens, Admiral Taverns chief executive Chris Jowsey and Punch Pubs chief executive Clive Chesser.
Mountstevens said: “Great leased and tenanted pubs are at the heart of communities, and brilliant businesses offer something different than managed businesses.”
He added that consumers were using pubs differently, which posed a challenge, as operators had to think about how to attract them.
Chesser maintained a confident business outlook, and was encouraged by sales over the last few months when the sun came out.
He said: “The customer neither knows nor cares what model is behind the scenes”. At the front end, Punch Pubs was continually innovating and kept refreshing its offer as well as evaluating the value for money equation, the chief executive added.
The bosses also discussed the slew of pub closures that have rocked the sector. For Mountstevens, a level of closure was “inevitable”.
While the widespread coverage of pub shutdowns had created a “doom loop”, he believed that it wasn’t all negative. Every pub that closes gives space for fantastic innovation and brilliant operators, he added.
According to Jowsey, some of Admiral Taverns’ community pubs in some quite challenging locations were “really prospering”. The real threat, he believed, was with the independents.
Furthermore, Chesser always been “quite surprised” by the closure statistics and said the rate of closure in the leased and tenanted model was very slow.
“The leased and tenanted model is proving to be incredibly resilient,” he added. The sector had also proven its broader resilience, especially during the pandemic, he said.
The Punch boss continued to say that developing the operator managed model in the last few years meant the pubco had got better at managing pubs. This was expertise that flowed into the management of leased and tenanted businesses, making their partnership with the company “a lot stronger”.
Jowsey talked about being a “critical friend” to licensees in the business. It was important, he added, to present insight in a ‘coaching’ way that added value, but it was ultimately up to the tenanted operator whether they chose to follow the advice.
In recent years, Admiral Taverns had invested £50m in its facilities, pubs, and the environment within them. Sites had to be of a style and value that customers would want to use them. Operators had been asked to step up the business in what they provided.
If pubs were really connected to the community, it was an “absolute win-win,” he added, as customers saw improvements and wanted to support the business.
Mountstevens recognised that every pub was individual. The team couldn’t provide bespoke advice to each pub, but it could make target support available.
The panellists were asked to describe their ideal licensee. Chesser said the quality and quantity of applicants wanting to run pubs was “stronger than ever”.
Confidence for the future
This gave him “great confidence” that the pubco had created a new model that was “filling a bit of a void” in that it was better suited to provide the right package to the right pub or individual.
For Jowsey, the addition of a retail division had been “fantastic”. There were a large group of people who were great at running front of house, and it was a “great stepping stone” in doing what they were really good at, then easing in to doing back of house and learning how to run a business.
He was not convinced new operators needed hospitality experience to running a pub, but, he asked, “do they know what it takes?”
Mountstevens added that he had seen an uptick in the number of applications in those wanting to run a business. He’d also seen an improvement of the quality of these applications.